Monday, October 23, 2017

The Captain Class

This book won me, lost me, won me back, lost me again, won me at the end.

Short version: Sam Walker's The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates The World's Greatest Teams is onto something about leadership in general, though for most of the book he expresses it entirely in terms of sports. He goes awry when trying to nail it to the floor by relating captain behavior to social science research. Sometimes it's plausible, sometimes its a stretch, and sometimes the research he is leaning on isn't that good. I suppose he needed to include it, as he ties it all in at the end to a theory of leadership in many circumstances, and the research references provide a bridge. When he discussed at the end how this type of leadership is disappearing, because people think it is obsolete, messy, over-rated, he was most convincing. None of the dynasties he spent the book describing, nor the near-dynasties that just missed the cut, exhibited the newer-fashion leadership.


The secret to winning is not what you think it is.
It’s not the coach. It’s not the star.
It’s not money. It’s not a strategy.
It’s something else entirely.

He makes a very good case that a particular type of captaincy, that sacrifices its own glory for the good of the team - private, extremely dogged, doing the little, humble things, taking risks against management and popularity for the sake of teammates, using emotion and edge-of-the-rules behavior in calculated fashion, underlies every single one of the dynastic teams he examines. All of those teams had good players, at least decent coaches, and fortunate circumstances in order to play at highest levels of competition - but plenty of other teams had those things as well.  Those latter teams won some championships. Some of them were good for short periods.  But the sixteen dynasties he evaluates had only one thing in common - a captain of the sort Christians would call a servant leader. 

I disagreed at the margins with his criteria for inclusion in the greatest dynasties of all time.  I would have dropped a few, included several he didn't, but as he doubled back at the end to discuss many of the near misses, identifying that most of them had similar captains as well, it didn't end up hurting his overall premise. Sometimes the captains were the best players on those teams: Bill Russell, Tim Duncan; just as often their names are seldom remembered: Carla Overbeck (US, women's soccer),  Ferenc Puskas (Hungary, men's soccer). Pele was not the captain who brought the championships; Michael Jordan's teams did not win unless one of those types of captain was in place.

Walker relates this exceptional captainship back to other professional sports teams, who didn't even make his second-tier category, and then to other types of leadership in business, military, research. I wish he had spent more on this, that such an approach not only makes great teams elite, but makes bad teams mediocre, and mediocre ones good. You can plug it in anywhere and improve things.

I am not a leader, I often say, and I was about to let it go at that as I finished the book, when I remembered there was a time I had led in very much this way. I was transferred out of one dysfunctional team into another, but I needed very, very badly for this new team to do well, in order to illustrate that I had not been the cause of the previous dysfunction. I was lowest or second-lowest in official rank, replacing a person who had been fired for stealing from patent accounts. The psychologist and social worker disliked each other openly; the psychiatrist was new, and gentle; nursing was in rotation and in personality conflict of its own; rehab staff was just out of school; line staff was demoralised. And yet it was easy.  Pouring myself into it, we became very good, very quickly.  I would say humorously "We're the best in the country.  Really, we are.  Oh, there's a psych admission team in Iowa that wins the award every year, but they're just running on reputation.  We'll get 'em next year." It was fun.

Remembering that caused me to see a few other instances over my lifetime - never for any length of time, because the time and emotional commitment went to my family instead. Then I thought: family. It's partly true there as well.  I am talkative, even noisy, and noticeable in social situations, so one would never link me with any sort of self-effacement. Yet I think I can claim some anyway, surprising even myself. I put time into the small notoriety of this site, but that is since the first four children graduated highschool. Until just now I had said I was the coach, setting my wife and children up to go out into the world to do things and be noticed. I don't lead things - I pushed them into that. I exaggerate.  I have been on church committees, taken some active worship or teaching roles, but most often as a fill-in, someone to hold the fort until a real preacher or teacher can make it to the scene. My jack-of-all-eldering abilities have been useful in that role. My hobbies are at-home hobbies, only rarely something all my own, until very recently.

Most traditionally, people can look back and see that their mother filled that role in the family: the one who made everyone else a player, keeping in communication with all, praising and correcting, always on duty. That's the stereotype, though husbands with star wives, and fathers with star children were always in the mix even when American society was supposedly more rigid and stratified than that. I knew many families like that, looking back.

After reading this, it may not be coach, but captain in that specific sense that has been my role. I am also a participant and not just an observer, after all. Had this book been out years ago I might have been better at it.

No comments: